The arts minister, Mark Fisher, surprised the House of Commons this week by announcing an urgent review into the growing practice of charging. But Government sources said yesterday that there was little if any scope to increase the amount of public money that goes to museums. If charges were to be axed, the shortfall would have to be made up by increased commercial activities and increased private sponsorship.
The Government's antipathy to museum charges was signalled by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, before the election. However, the Government does not have any statutory power to end charges and, without an increase in grant-in-aid, the national museums that do charge are certain to tell Mr Fisher that they have already made every effort to secure business sponsorship and are exploiting their commercial outlets to the full.
A spokesman at the Department of National Heritage confirmed that the Government could only urge museum trustees to re-think their policies.
Mr Fisher told the Commons: "We do not want anyone to be charged entry to national museums and galleries ... The Government believes that all members of the community should be able to enjoy our great national museums and galleries: they should be for the many, not just the few. We are concerned about the growth of charging and are reviewing present arrangements urgently."
But yesterday, Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum, which charges pounds 6 per adult and is the most popular "paying" museum in the country, said: "We will tell Mr Fisher that the abolition of museum charges without compensation would be the single most damaging thing that could be done in denying access. It would mean certain of our galleries closing and possibly the entire museum closing on some days of the week."
Mr Fisher is to meet the directors and trustees of all the national museums and ask them what other options they can consider if they end admission charges. He will want to know why some institutions can get by without charging while others cannot.
He has already met the chairman and director of the British Museum, whose trustees recently decided not to impose charges.
Of the national galleries and museums only the Tate Gallery, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and British Museum do not charge.
Museums that do charge include the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert, Science Museum, Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum. Most charge around pounds 5 a head but all have concessionary schemes for children and pensioners, allow school groups in free, and some have allotted times when anyone can get in free.
It is not clear whether the public shares the Government's concern about charging. Mr Fisher will be told by the Victoria and Albert Museum that its visitor numbers actually went up after introducing compulsory admission charges of pounds 5 last year. In addition, the museum's research among visitors shows that less than 5 per cent shared campaigners' worries about charging.
A spokeswoman said: "If Mr Fisher can come up with an alternative to charging to meet the shortfall in our budget, all well and good. But we don't know of one."
In the Commons Mr Fisher said: "National galleries and museums are in their current position because of the neglect and the hostile policies of the previous government." But he gave no indication of how the Labour government could ensure that museums would make up the shortfall if they abolished charges.
Leading article, page 15